WomensLaw serves and supports all survivors, no matter their sex or gender.

Legal Information: New York


July 7, 2023

Do I need a lawyer? What if I can't afford one?

It is better to have a lawyer if at all possible. If you are filing for an uncontested divorce and you believe your spouse will not disagree with anything, then you may want to file without the help of a lawyer by using the uncontested divorce do-it-yourself program available on the NY State Courts website.

If you are asking for custody, child support, spousal support, or to divide up marital property or marital debt, you may want to hire a lawyer because these issues get quite complicated. Also, it is important for you to find out if your spouse has a pension, retirement account, insurance or other significant property before you decide whether to file for divorce. If you do not ask for such things in the divorce, you will give them up forever. Note: If the only “contested” issues involve custody or visitation of the children and there are no other financial issues or division of property, you might want to deal with custody and child support in family court before you file for divorce. Those family court orders could then be incorporated into (become part of) the divorce. This may make the divorce uncontested and easier to handle.

If you are low-income, you can get an attorney appointed for you in the divorce but only to handle the custody and visitation portion of the divorce action, not the division of property or support portions. (You could also get an attorney appointed to handle an order of protection if you file for an order of protection during the divorce).1

If you do not qualify for a free, court-appointed lawyer, or if you need a lawyer to handle issues that the court-appointed lawyer won’t handle, there may be help according to the law. The judge can order the spouse who has more money to pay the other spouse’s attorney’s fees and the fees and expenses of experts (such as a forensic psychologist) if this is necessary for the less-monied spouse to be adequately represented in the divorce. The judge will assume that the richer spouse should pay the poorer spouse’s attorney fees although the richer spouse can try to change the judge’s mind and offer evidence to show why this should not be done. The money would be paid during the divorce (not at the end) to your attorney directly.2 This law also applies to a court case you may have to later bring to enforce any part of the divorce or custody order that the other spouse is violating.3

Please see our NY Finding a Lawyer page for free legal services and a paid legal referral service. If you have to hire a lawyer, go to our How do I find and choose a lawyer? page.

If you are going to be in court without a lawyer, our Preparing for Court – By Yourself section may be useful to you.1 See NY Judiciary Law § 35(8)
2 NY Dom. Rel. Law § 237(a)
3 NY Dom. Rel. Law § 237(b)